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 ◄ The Ethics of Empowerment by Neil Orr & David Patient ()

1. Introduction

There are many methods to produce change in the people around you. Some people and organizations are highly skilled at this - sales people and advertising agencies are examples of this. However, in the process of facilitating change, we need to consider whether the changes we are producing are ethical. Without a set of ethics - values that we strive to uphold - all we are doing is training you to be manipulative, and this can be harmful to others, and to your relationships with people. There are always consequences for unethical behaviours.

It is the experience of many peer educators and development workers that you do not simply enter a community, transfer the apparently 'missing' skill or resource, and walk away, job well done. Often, such a naive approach results in rejection and disillusionment. There are many factors that determine receptivity and the appropriateness and success of such transferals of resources. The following are some of the most important considerations of factors that help or hinder such processes, which are typically ignored due to the fact that they are not visible, but rather form part of the fabric of the value and identity systems of communities:

1.1 Who are you? What do you want? What is important in life?

In all communities, the first consideration of empowerment is the fundamental need for an identity: Who we are, what we want, and what we value. It is much more difficult to change a value system than it is to identify such values, and work within them. This is achieved by asking members of the community what they really want, and what their primary values and sense of identity are. However, it is a common experience that the most fundamental beliefs and desires of a community are not always conscious or readily accessible. Therefore, specific methods are used to allow such desires and beliefs to become conscious.

1.2 Why do you deserve to live?

The second consideration in community empowerment is the strength of the conscious value and appreciation of life itself. Although it is commonly assumed that 'everyone wants to live', this is in fact not true. For many people, life is painful, hard, and sometimes plain boring. War, AIDS, malaria, political upheaval, and droughts have created a situation where life itself is not valued, and many people do not have a strong and compelling urge to protect their lives, and do what it takes to improve their lives. It is often a shock for many people to discover how little they truly value their lives, and this is the beginning of the process of change for many. 

1.3 What do you hope for?

The third consideration is the presence (or absence) of the community's desire (or dream) for a potential future where specific desires and needs are met, and values respected. Although this may appear strange to development workers and planners who are goal-focused, many traditional cultures exist within a paradigm where the adherence to specific ways of being leads to achievement of needs. Goals are defined by these ways of being. When environmental factors change, it is often very difficult to individually or collectively 'dream' of future situations that deviate from traditional ways of being. Instead, a sense of hopelessness sets in, particularly when traditional ways of being are failing to fulfill basic needs. A classic example would be how the traditional role of women defines a woman's skill to dream or set goals for herself, versus having the future defined by a man.

We have developed specific methods to achieve this, which are rooted in a hybrid mixture of traditional rituals and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). Application of the methods are simple, and highly effective, as demonstrated in Positive Living programs in Mozambique, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Eritrea, Lesotho and Swaziland, to name a few countries where this technology has been successfully applied. The fundamental objective is to resurrect a desirable future in the community, something to work towards. Once this is in place, the subsequent empowerment methods (food security, health and wellness methods, etc) have a context which motivates people to implement.

With these first three considerations - identity, value of life, and presence of a desired future - the dynamics of empowerment change fundamentally, for individuals and groups. When the first three elements are in place, there is a context - a 'why' - for subsequent empowerment projects to attract involvement, and remain sustained.

1.4 What do you have? What do you need?

The fourth consideration in community empowerment differs from community to community, and involves resources - access to water, food, education, medical services, and basic amenities. Clearly, the specifics depend upon what the community has stated it wants and needs. It is worth noting that, in the absence of the first three factors (identity, future dream, value of life), even existing resources are frequently not utilized to their full potential. Simplistically, resources need to be place within a psychosocial vessel of values, goals and identity. Without such a vessel, they usually dissipate into the barren sand of good intentions.

It should be obvious that, prior to any empowerment (i.e., the first three considerations), there needs to be a detailed factual analysis of the resources available to the specific community. There is, for example, no point in utilizing the tools to encourage people to get tested for HIV (or take malaria prophylaxis), when the physical resources for such actions are simply not available. Therefore, empowerment - in the sense that we are describing - needs to be an integrated approach, which links with existing programs and facilities.

2. The Role Players in Empowerment

Just as the communities you seek to serve have a sense of identity and a value system that define their behaviour and what they consider desirable and obtainable, so do you. The forces that form the community's realities apply to you as well, leading you to view things as more or less desirable, right/wrong, achievable, and not achievable. This can - and does - have a profound impact upon the work you do. Therefore, it is critical for you to get clear on what your influences are, so that you can decide whether they serve the work you do or not.

In any given empowerment situation, there are at least three groups of players:

  1. You (I)
  2. The person(s) you seek to empower (YOU)
  3. The gatekeepers who influence what is considered possible or feasible. We refer to these as 'THEY', as in the statement 'They will not let me …'

As a point of clarity: 'They' can refer to anyone. It can refer to the people who provide funding, the tribal leader, politicians, parents, ancestors, priests, religious leaders, teachers, your boss … anyone who has a say in how the empowerment process operates.

3. The Ethics of Empowerment

There is no such thing as being neutral: Whether we like it or not, we affect the world by virtue of our personal histories and preferences, and also the culture we were raised in.

We see, hear and respond to the world according to what we are capable of seeing, hearing and responding to. For example: A medically-trained professional would tend to view an emotional imbalance as the result of a chemical imbalance, and thus the solution would focus upon restoring that chemical imbalance. However, a psychologist would view the chemical imbalance as the result of an emotional imbalance, and seek to address the emotional issue. In the same way, a government (or development agency) would view small-scale farmers as having the potential to form the back-bone of a viable export economy. However, that same small-scale farmer may view his (or her) activities as purely focused upon supplying his or her family with food. Therefore, these two agents (government and the farmer) may view agricultural development very differently, and may express completely different needs and priorities.

From our point of view, the upholding of the ethic of neutrality (i.e., striving to be objective) is not only impossible, it is also counter-productive. However, in the absence of a more workable ethic, the ethic of objectivity is viewed as sacred. This prevents us from engaging in the development of a more viable ethic, namely the ethics of relationship, which we call the ethics of empowerment.

An ethic is a belief or value that you strive to uphold. For example, a doctor takes an oath (promise) to do no harm when working with patients. Counselors agree to protect the confidentiality of all clients. Politicians make promises to do certain things if elected. In essence, we cannot speak of valuing life (our own, and those of others) until we define what we believe is most important about that life. The relevant focus concept for an ethic of relationship is values.

Value systems vary from community to community. We are also quite prone to trying to impose our values upon others. Is this ethical? Which leads us to the question: What are 'ethics', and why should we bother with them at all? Why don't we simply do what we believe to be right, and when others differ, force them to comply - after all, don't we know better than they do? In other words, aren't some people more qualified to know what is good and bad?

This type of thinking - often heard, or at least felt - by many 'helpers' of others, needs to be confronted directly, as it undermines the very nature of what empowerment truly is: Facilitating the emergence of the inherent power contained in 'them'.

An ethic is a value system that directs behaviours, based upon what we believe to be fundamentally true about ourselves, others, and the world (i.e., our world-view, or paradigm). In essence, an ethic is a set of norms (what to do, and not do) based upon what we believe our life truly means. Although we are often not aware of our background ethical system, it is useful - essential - to be aware that it exists, as it has a profound impact upon what we do, why we do it, and how we do it. 

Usually, the basic world-view we operate from is the same as the one we were raised in, educated in, and work in. We therefore typically conclude that it is 'the only way', and other paradigms are defective, and need to be changed to fit ours. After all, if I have figured out what to do to be happy in my world, all that other people need to do is to agree to see the world my way, and then do what I do, and they will be happy too! This is well-intentioned approach, but not necessarily effective.

The legal and justice system of a specific society is often a clear indicator of the paradigm and ethic in that society: 'An eye for an eye', or 'rehabilitation'? Is criminal behaviour caused by external forces (e.g., the upbringing of the child), or evil spirits, or a conscious choice (or lack of will) of the individual? Is 'crime' something that is defined in terms of harm to property and person, or does it include perceived harm to intangible things such as morality, beliefs, norms (e.g., the role of women) or traditions?

How do we know when to respond to a situation? I.e., when do we know that something is going on that needs our input? In our personal paradigm, we are usually quite clear on the ethics. However, when we deal with communities with a different world-view, how can we tell the difference between interfering and empowering?

To follow are a few basic ethical guidelines that we have found to be effective for us, as they protect the dignity and choice of those we seek to empower.



We believe that the only way we can truly protect and respect the dignity and inherent value of life, is to honour and protect the conscious choices made by others. I.e., if someone does not want what we have to offer, we respect that. If someone does not recognize their choice in a matter, we maintain our view that they have that choice. Without this belief, we cannot speak of genuine empowerment (i.e., recognizing and facilitating the power within to emerge, so that the other person is enhanced - self-sustaining, more able to control his/her world) through the interaction, versus becoming dependant).

However, this is not as simple as it sounds. Due to a variety of reasons (events and socialization), a person or group may not be consciously aware of their power and choices. Therefore, it is sometimes necessary to first facilitate conscious awareness of choice before seeking to enquire what that choice is. For example: If a person is deeply depressed and wants to end his or her life, is he or she operating from conscious choice? Usually, they are not. Nor, would we argue, do young children (partially, at least), mentally challenged people, or those in semi- or fully unconscious states.



Every person - including you - has a 'map of the world'. This refers to the way you see the world, your resources (past and present), how your world actually is (resources), what you value, believe, language, religion, relationships, and so forth. This has been referred to previously as your paradigm.

One of the basic premises - or values - of empowerment is to seek to understand and respect the other person's (or group's) map of the world. This also means making an effort to work from within their map of the world. This is where the Memes become an important tool in how you engage in empowerment with a specific community.




This is not always an easy ethic to hold, as some people do some strange and harmful things. However, when you consider that 'resources' include internal beliefs, feelings, and sometimes the lack of internal resources (confidence, feeling safe, loved, etc), this ethic makes sense. It also provides an avenue or way or thinking that seeks to uncover what resources led to the behaviour, and therefore the possibility of changing behaviour through modification of resources. In the case of criminal behaviour - usually the area we get stuck on regarding this ethic - this means that justice (i.e., trial, sentence, imprisonment) is still appropriate. However, instead of doing this to simply remove the person from society, the true purpose of the penal system becomes important: Rehabilitation (i.e., internal resource empowerment).



This means that we do not seek to judge who people are. Instead, we seek to facilitate changes in what they do, if they choose to change.




This is an important ethic, as it focuses our attention upon sustainable empowerment. It is true that we can facilitate change in specific people, in specific areas of their lives. However, can these changes be sustained (by them) afterwards? What are the consequences for the individual and/or community? It is easy to fall into anger on certain problems, and seek dramatic change. However, it is important to always consider the whole person or community - what are the consequences? It is sometimes necessary to step out of our map of the world, examine the situation from their map of the world, and seek ways to empower that work for them, with due consideration of the consequences. Classic example: Empower a woman to say 'No' to sex without a condom, without consideration of what will happen as a result. Wholeness means that the husband is included in the empowerment process as a 'THEY' position.



This ethic or principle can be difficult, especially when you have tried hard to achieve something, and not obtained it. However, when you view such results as feedback - i.e., important information regarding how you are doing in the process - there is no such thing as failure, only 'incomplete success'. With this principle in mind, we examine the results of our efforts, and adjust what needs to be adjusted, and we carry on.



In many ways, this principle brings together many of the other ethics. If you communicate, then the response (or lack thereof) is simply a reflection of your communication. If you communicate differently, you will get different results. Examine their map of the world again.

If you keep on doing what you have always done, you will get the same results. You cannot expect people to change, when you are not willing to consider changing yourself, and the way you communicate.

The Law of Requisite Variety (an evolutionary principle) says that: The system or person with the most flexibility of behaviour (and this includes communication) will have the most influence or power within that system.

Therefore, your willingness to be flexible will directly determine how effective you are in empowering the communities you seek to empower.

4. Rights & Responsibilities

The ethics of empowerment - as listed in previous paragraphs - inevitably lead to a specific area of conflict and confusion: What is the 'right' thing to do when the values and choices of one person (or group) conflict with another person's (or group)?  Often, development workers face this dilemma when they witness one person harming another, in the name of 'that's what we do - it's my right'. Often, such situations (e.g., abuse of children or women) evoke great emotions, even from the most neutral observer, and justifiably so. It is in situations like this that our ethics are most clearly challenged, and the desire to isolate, retaliate in kind, control and punish emerges. What do we do in situations like this? How does 'empowerment' operate in such situations?

First, we ask ourselves: Does this ethic serves our needs? Does it allow us to live with dignity, and does it serve our relationships?

Second, we examine our ethics closely. We ask ourselves what the ethics means, and we explore the depths of meaning. We debate, discuss, and interpret, collectively. We form agreements of what the ethic means.

Finally, we ask ourselves what the ethic requires us to do. Sometimes, this is obvious, and other times it is a challenge to evolve and develop new skills and resources.

5. Conclusions about ethics

Ethics are not mere 'rules'. Instead, ethics are values that we strive to live up to. As a result, they invoke evolution and development, personally and socially.

The question is: What set of values are most effective and efficient in guiding our efforts to empower others (and ourselves) in the long-term? I.e., what values most closely matches the hidden potential contained in us all, and evokes that potential to emerge? We believe that the ethics listed in this document go a long way to guiding us in the release of such potential.

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